By Raymond Castile
The Francis Howell deans have survived one round of budget cuts, though their titles and duties might change.
After a long and contentious debate Thursday night, the Board of Education voted 4-3 to retain the district’s six high school deans, but with conditions. The schools will maintain six equivalent positions, but the district administration must develop new titles and job descriptions to submit for board approval. The individuals currently employed as deans will fill those six positions.
Deans perform administrative duties, but are paid through teacher contracts. There are two in each of the district’s three high schools. They handle discipline and work with at-risk students.
Board member Terry Black crafted the motion preserving the positions after disagreeing with board President Mark Lafata, who said last month he wanted to eliminate all six deans to reduce the district’s deficit by $400,000.
On Thursday, Lafata proposed keeping three deans and creating three new positions. Black opposed the plan after learning the current deans would not be guaranteed those positions or the same total annual pay. Black then motioned to keep all six deans with no changes. Lafata accused Black of caving in to public pressure.
Earlier that evening, several district educators and parents addressed the board, urging them to keep the deans. Several board members said they received numerous e-mails supporting the deans. But Lafata said economic conditions have forced the district to cut members of several employee groups, so board members should not be influenced just because one group mounted an organized protest.
“If you can’t deal with it, you need to resign from the school board, Mr. Black,” Lafata said.
“I never let a handful of opinions influence my vote,” Black said.
Black said the deans were valuable employees and he did not want to leave them hanging. He also did not want to create new positions this late in the staffing and budgeting process, Black said.
Board member Sandy Sanders said she thought it would be a “bad decision to let the deans go.”
Lafata called for a recess, then he and Black entered closed chambers. Black later said Lafata apologized to him during their private discussion. They also agreed to seek input from Superintendent Renee Schuster, who was attending another event Thursday night. Black called Schuster and the board meeting resumed with the superintendent on a speaker phone.
Schuster said she could support keeping all six deans. But she suggested keeping three, one in each school, then using the other three positions “to support teachers and students” in the district’s team approach to staff, discipline and curriculum development.
Board member Mike Hoehn said, “Aren’t we talking about the same thing, just retitling them?”
Member Mike Sommer said, “It sounds like we’ll have the same people doing the same work for the same pay, but we just won’t call them deans.”
More motions were made, amended and withdrawn until some board members complained they no longer understood what they were voting for.
Finally Black, acting on Schuster’s advice, motioned to approve six positions and direct the administration to develop job descriptions and titles to be brought back to the board. Black’s motion stipulated that the six current deans would occupy the new positions.
Members Black, Lafata, Sommer and Ken Schaller voted to approve the motion. Members Hoehn, Marty Hodits and Sanders voted against it.
“I’m disappointed,” Sanders said. “I don’t see why we couldn’t leave the six deans as it was.”
After the meeting, Black said district employees have told him the dean positions have evolved over time, rendering the original job descriptions inadequate.
“The board said we’re going to keep all six people, but redefine their roles for efficiency,” Black said.
Lafata said he wanted to allocate district dollars toward positions that provided “the best support for students in tough economic times.” He said he supported the final motion because the board would be able to vote on new job descriptions.
“The goal is not to save employee groups, but to utilize staff to the best of our ability,” Lafata said.
Thomas Potteiger is one of two deans of students at Francis Howell North High School. Potteiger said he was happy with the board’s decision.
“It was a really good process,” Potteiger said. “The effort and the thought they put into the discussion showed the board cared about what is going on in our buildings.”
Howard and Traci Palmer said one of their sons would not have graduated from Francis Howell North last June without a dean’s help. The Palmers said the dean kept their son “on the straight and narrow” and “saw the good in him.”
Howard Palmer said the high schools need deans to be liaisons between students and administrators. The deans “keep in tune” with students and know what is going on with them, he said. Palmer said he approved of the board’s decision, though he thought it would amount to little more than a title change.